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The Claim to the Roman Empire

Anomalies in the Behavior of the Emperor Constantine

Anomalies in the Behavior of Pope Sylvester

Lack of Supporting Evidence

Contradiction by Historical Records

Errors in Terminology

Errors of Fact


Appendix: Text of the Donation of Constantine



Lorenzo Valla (1406 to 1457)was born and educated in Rome. After becoming a priest in 1431, he sought the post of apostolic secretary in Rome. He failed to achieve this but gained a professorship in eloquence at Pavia and subsequently lectured at other universities. In 1435 he became private secretary to Alphonso of Aragon. In 1440 he wrote a discourse proving the forgery of the alleged Donation of Constantine. He also showed that a letter from Christ to Abgarus and other church documents were forgeries.  In addition he criticized the monastic life. He was rescued from the Inquisition by the special intervention of Alphonso.

In his treatise On Pleasure, Valla contrasted the views of the Stoics with those of Epicurus, producing for the first time a scholarly work putting forward with cogency the views of non-Christian philosophers. Valla ridiculed the latin of the Vulgate version of the bible and accused St. Augustine of heresy. He escaped being murdered in Rome by fleeing in disguise to Naples, via Barcelona. However, after the death of Pope Eugenius IV he returned to Rome, where the new Pope, Nicholas V, made him an apostolic secretary. This reversal of Valla’s treatment by the church has been seen as "a triumph of humanism over orthodoxy and tradition."

Erasmus described Valla as "a man who with so much energy, zeal and labor, refuted the stupidities of the barbarians, saved half-buried letters from extinction, restored Italy to her ancient splendor of eloquence, and forced even the learned to express themselves henceforth with more circumspection."

Valla’s investigation of the Donation of Constantine and proof of its falsity was a landmark in the rise of skepticism regarding "official" documents and in the application of critical scholarship as a means to judge their veracity. This was a document that alleged the transfer of possessions and power from the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great to Sylvester, the Bishop of Rome (314-336). It confirmed that bishop as the head of all clergy, assigned to him the emperor’s property in various parts of the world, elevated Roman clergy to the rank of the highest Roman orders, and granted to Sylvester Rome, all of Italy, and most of the Roman empire. The validity of the document was rarely questioned from the ninth to the fifteenth century. Quotations from the document are indicated by italics below. The text is given in the Appendix to this chapter.

Modern study of the words used in the Donation, indicates a usage common in the eighth century and, more specifically, identifies phrases associated with the papal chancellery of Paul I.


The Claim to the Roman Empire

1    I know that for a long time now men's ears are waiting to hear the offense with which I charge the Roman pontiffs. It is, indeed, an enormous one, due either to supine ignorance, or to gross avarice which is the slave of idols, or to pride of empire of which cruelty is ever the companion. For during some centuries now, either they have not known that the Donation of Constantine is spurious and forged, or else they themselves forged it, and their successors walking in the same way of deceit as their elders have defended as true what they knew to be false, dishonoring the majesty of the pontificate, dishonoring the memory of ancient pontiffs, dishonoring the Christian religion, confounding everything with murders, disasters and crimes. They say the city of Rome is theirs, theirs the kingdom of Sicily and of Naples, the whole of Italy, the Gauls, the Spains, the Germans, the Britons, indeed the whole West; for all these are contained in the instrument of the Donation itself. So all these are yours, supreme pontiff? And it is your purpose to recover them all? To despoil all kings and princes of the West of their cities or compel them to pay you a yearly tribute, is that your plan?

        I, on the contrary, think it fairer to let the princes despoil you of all the empire you hold. For, as I shall show, that Donation whence the supreme pontiffs will have their right derived was unknown equally to Sylvester and to Constantine.

         But before I come to the refutation of the instrument of the Donation, which is their one defense, not only false but even stupid, the right order demands that I go further back. And first, I shall show that Constantine and Sylvester were not such men that the former would choose to give, would have the legal right to give, or would have it in his power to give those lands to another, or that the latter would be willing to accept them or could legally have done so.

        In the second place, if this were not so, though it is absolutely true and obvious, [I shall show that in fact] the latter did not receive nor the former give possession of what is said to have been granted, but that it always remained under the sway and empire of the Caesars.

        In the third place, [I shall show that] nothing was given to Sylvester by Constantine, but to an earlier Pope (and Constantine had received baptism even before that pontificate), and that the grants were inconsiderable, for the mere subsistence of the Pope.

        Fourth, that it is not true either that a copy of the Donation is found in the Decretum [of Gratian], or that it was taken from the History of Sylvester; for it is not found in it or in any history, and it is comprised of contradictions, impossibilities, stupidities, barbarisms and absurdities. 


Anomalies in the Behavior of the Emperor Constantine

2        I call upon you, kings and princes, for it is difficult for a private person to form a picture of a royal mind; I seek your thought, I search your heart, I ask your testimony. Is there any one of you who, had he been in Constantine's place, would have thought that he must set about giving to another out of pure generosity the city of Rome, his fatherland, the head of the world, the queen of states, the most powerful, the noblest and the most opulent of peoples, the victor of the nations, whose very form is sacred, and betaking himself thence to an humble little town, Byzantium; giving with Rome, Italy, not a province but the mistress of provinces; giving the three Gauls; giving the two Spains; the Germans; the Britons; the whole West; depriving himself of one of the two eyes of his empire? That any one in possession of his senses would do this, I cannot be brought to believe 

3        They say, it was because he had become a Christian. Would he therefore renounce the best part of his empire? I suppose it was a crime, an outrage, a felony, to reign after that, and that a kingdom was incompatible with the Christian religion! Those who live in adultery, those who have grown rich by usury, those who possess goods which belong to another, they after baptism are wont to restore the stolen wife, the stolen money, the stolen goods. If this be your idea, Constantine, you must restore your cities to liberty, not change their master. 

4        But if, having been such a man as he was, he had been transformed as it were into another man, there would certainly not have been lacking those who would warn him, most of all his sons, his relatives, and his friends. Who does not think that they would have gone at once to the emperor? Picture them to yourself, when the purpose of Constantine had become known, trembling, hastening to fall with groans and tears at the feet of the prince, and saying:     

        "Is it thus that you, a father hitherto most affectionate toward your sons, despoil your sons, disinherit them, disown them? We do not complain of the fact that you choose to divest yourself of the best and largest part of the empire so much as we wonder at it. But we do complain that you give it to others to our loss and shame. Why do you defraud your children of their expected succession to the empire, you who yourself reigned in partnership with your father? What have we done to you? By what disloyalty to you, to our country, to the Roman name or the majesty of the empire, are we deemed to deserve to be deprived of the chiefest and best part of our principality; that we should be banished from our paternal home, from the sight of our native land, from the air we are used to, from our ancient ties! Shall we leave our household gods, our shrines, our tombs, exiles, to live we know not where, nor in what part of the earth?

        "And we, your kindred, your friends, who have stood so often with you in line of battle, who have seen brothers, fathers, sons, pierced and writhing under hostile sword, and have not been dismayed at the death of others, but were ourselves ready to seek death for your sake, why are we now deserted one and all by you! We who hold the public offices of Rome, who govern or are destined to govern the cities of Italy, the Gauls, the Spains, and the other provinces, are all of us to be deposed? Are all of us to be ordered into private life? Or will you compensate us elsewhere for this loss? And how can you, when such a large part of the world has been given to another? 


Anomalies in the Behavior of Pope Sylvester

5        Let us suppose, however, if possible, that neither prayers, nor threats, nor any argument availed aught, and that still Constantine persisted and was not willing to yield through persuasion the position he had taken. Who would not acknowledge himself moved by the speech of Sylvester, that is, if the event had ever actually occurred? It would doubtless have been something like this:

        "Most worthy prince and son, Caesar, though I cannot but like and embrace your piety, so abject and effusive, nevertheless you have fallen somewhat into error in offering gifts to God and immolating victims, and I am not at all surprised at it, for you are still a novice in the Christian service. As once it was not right for the priest to sacrifice every sort of beast and animal and fowl, so now he is not to accept every sort of gift. I am a priest and pontiff, and I ought to look carefully at what I permit to be offered on the altar, lest perchance there be offered, I do not say an unclean animal, but a viper or a serpent. And this is what you would do. 


6        "Your Majesty, should even I be both an example and a cause for the apostasy of others? I, a Christian, a priest of God, pontiff of Rome, vicar of Christ! For how, indeed, will the blamelessness of priests remain untouched amid riches, magistracies, and the management of secular business? Do we renounce earthly possessions in order to attain them more richly, and have we given up our own property in order to possess another's and the public's? Shall we have cities, tributes, tolls? How then can you call us 'clergy' if we do this? Our portion, or our lot, which in Greek is called kleros, is not earthly, but celestial. . . .

        "What are riches and dominions to me who am commanded by the voice of the Lord not to be anxious for the morrow, and to whom he said; 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, possess not gold nor silver nor money in your purses,’ and 'It is harder for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven, than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.' Therefore he chose poor men as his ministers, and those who left all to follow him, and was himself an example of poverty. Even so is the handling of riches and of money, not merely their possession and ownership, the enemy of uprightness. . .

7        "Nay more, I should have to use my authority to shed blood in punishing offenders, in waging wars, in sacking cities, in devastating countries with fire and sword. Otherwise I could not possibly keep what you have given me. And if I do this am I a priest, a pontiff, a vicar of Christ? Rather I should hear him thunder out against me, saying, 'My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.’" 


Lack of Supporting Evidence

8        Proceed to the next point; to make us believe in this "donation" which your document recites, something ought still to be extant concerning Sylvester's acceptance of it. There is nothing concerning it extant. But it is believable, you say, that he recognized this "donation." I believe so, too; that [if it was given] he not only recognized it, but sought it, asked for it, extorted it with his prayers; that is believable. But why do you reverse the natural conjecture and then say it is believable? For the fact that there is mention of the donation in the document of the deed is no reason for inferring that it was accepted; but on the contrary, the fact that there is no mention [anywhere] of an acceptance is reason for saying that there was no donation. 

9        0 avarice, ever blind and ill-advised! Let us suppose that you may be able to adduce even genuine documents for the assent of Sylvester, not tampered with, authentic: even so, were the grants actually made which are found in such documents? Where is any taking possession, any delivery? For if Constantine gave a charter only, he did not want to befriend Sylvester, but to mock him. It is likely, you say, that any one who makes a grant, gives possession of it, also. See what you are saying; for it is certain that possession was not given, and the question is whether the title was given! It is likely that one who did not give possession did not want to give the title either. 

10        Or is it not certain that possession was never given? To deny it is the sheerest impudence. Did Constantine ever lead Sylvester in state to the Capitol amid the shouts of the assembled Quirites, heathen as they were? Did he place him on a golden throne in the presence of the whole Senate? Did he command the magistrates, each in the order of his rank, to salute their king and prostrate themselves before him? This, rather than the giving of some palace such as the Lateran, is customary in the creation of new rulers. Did he afterwards escort him through all Italy? Did he go with him to the Gauls? Did he go to the Spains? Did he go to the Germans, and the rest of the West? Or if they both thought it too onerous to traverse so many lands, to whom did they delegate such an important function, to represent Caesar in transferring possession and Sylvester in receiving it? Distinguished men, and men of eminent authority, they must have been: and nevertheless we do not know who they were. 

11        Who that is at all widely read, does not know what Roman kings, what consuls, what dictators, what tribunes of the people, what censors, what aediles were chosen? Of such a large number of men in times so long past, none escapes us. We know also what Athenian commanders there were, and Theban, and Lacedemonian; we know all their battles on land and sea. Nor are the kings of the Persians unknown to us; of the Medes; of the Chaldeans; of the Hebrews; and of very many others; nor how each of these received his kingdom, or held it, or lost it, or recovered it. But how the Roman Empire, or rather the Sylvestrian, began, how it ended, when, through whom, is not known even in the city of Rome itself. I ask whether you can adduce any witnesses of these events, any writers. None, you answer. And are you not ashamed to say that it is likely that Sylvester possessed-even cattle, to say nothing of men!

        But since you cannot [prove anything], I for my part will show that Constantine, to the very last day of his life, and thereafter all the Caesars in turn, did have possession [of the Roman Empire], so that you will have nothing left even to mutter. But it is a very difficult, and, I suppose, a very laborious task, forsooth, to do this! Let all the Latin and the Greek histories be unrolled, let the other authors who mention those times be brought in, and you will not find a single discrepancy among them on this point. 


Contradiction by Historical Records

12        But it is high time, if I am not to be too prolix, to give the adversaries' cause, already struck down and mangled, the mortal blow and to cut its throat with a single stroke. Almost every history worthy of the name speaks of Constantine as a Christian from boyhood, with his father Constantius, long before the pontificate of Sylvester; as, for instance, Eusebius, author of the Church History, which Rufinus, himself a great scholar, translated into Latin, adding two books on his own times. Both of these men were nearly contemporary with Constantine. Add to this also the testimony of the Roman pontiff who not only took part, but the leading part in these events, who was not merely a witness but the prime mover, who narrates, not another's doings, but his own. I refer to Pope Melchiades, Sylvester's immediate predecessor. He says: "The church reached the point where not only the nations, but even the Roman rulers who held sway over the whole world, came together into the faith of Christ and the sacraments of the faith. One of their number, a most devout man, Constantine, the first openly to come to belief in the Truth, gave permission to those living under his government, throughout the whole world, not only to become Christians, but even to build churches, and he decreed that landed estates be distributed among these. Finally also the said ruler bestowed immense offerings, and began the building of the temple which was the first seat of the blessed Peter, going so far as to leave his imperial residence and give it over for the use of the blessed Peter and his successors." You see, incidentally, that Melchiades does not say that anything was given by Constantine except the Lateran palace, and landed estates, which Gregory mentions very frequently in his register. Where are those who do not permit us to call into question whether the Donation of Constantine is valid, when the "donation" both antedated Sylvester and conferred private possessions alone?

13        But I want to take the forger himself, truly a "straw" man without wheat, by the neck, and drag him into court. What do you say, you forger? Whence comes it that we do not read this grant in the Acts of Sylvester? This book, forsooth, is rare, difficult to get, not owned by the many but rather kept as the Fasti once were by the pontifices, or the Sibylline books by the Decemvirs! It was written in Greek, or Syriac, or Chaldee! Gelasius testifies that it was read by many of the orthodox; Voragine mentions it; we also have seen thousands of copies of it, and written long ago; and in almost every cathedral it is read when Sylvester's Day comes around. Yet nevertheless no one says that he has read there what you put in it [the Donation]; no one has heard of it; no one has dreamt of it. 

14        But I am foolish to inveigh against the audacity of this [forger], instead of inveighing against the insanity of those who give him credence. If any one should say that this had been recorded for remembrance among the Greeks, the Hebrews, the barbarians, would you not bid him name his author, produce his book, and the passage, to be explained by a reliable translator, before you would believe it? But now your own language, and a very well-known book are involved, and either you do not question such an incredible occurrence, or when you do not find it written down you have such utter credulity as to believe that it is written down and authentic! And, satisfied with this title, you move heaven and earth, and, as though no doubt existed, you pursue with the terrors of war and with other threats those who do not believe you! 


Errors in Terminology

15        "The page of the privilege" [i.e., the Donation of Constantine] this crazy man calls it. And do you (let me controvert him as though he were present) call the gift of the earth a "privilege"; do you want it written thus in the document; and do you want Constantine to use that kind of language? If the title is ridiculous, what shall we think the rest of it is?

        The Emperor Constantine the fourth day after his baptism conferred this privilege on the pontiff of the Roman church, that in the whole Roman world priests should regard him as their head, as judges do the king. This sentence is part of the History [Life] of Sylvester, and it leaves no doubt where [nor why] the document gets its title "privilege."


16        In this privilege, among other things, is this: We—together with all our satraps and the whole Senate and the nobles also, and all the people subject to the government of the Roman church—considered it advisable that, as the blessed Peter is seen to have been constituted vicar of God on the earth, so the pontiffs who are the representatives of that same chief of the apostles, should obtain from us and our Empire the power of a supremacy greater than the clemency of our earthly imperial serenity is seen to have conceded to it.

        0 thou scoundrel, thou villain! The same history [the Life of Sylvester] which you allege as your evidence, says that for a long time none of senatorial rank was willing to accept the Christian religion, and that Constantine solicited the poor with bribes to be baptized. And you say that within the first days, immediately, the Senate, the nobles, the satraps, as though already Christians, with the Caesar passed decrees for the honoring of the Roman church!

        What! How do you want to have satraps come in here? Numskull, blockhead! Do the Caesars speak thus; are Roman decrees usually drafted thus? Whoever heard of satraps being mentioned in the councils of the Romans? I do not remember ever to have read of any Roman satrap being mentioned, or even of a satrap in any of the Roman provinces. But this fellow speaks of the Emperor's satraps, and puts them in before the Senate, though all honors, even those bestowed upon the ruling prince, are decreed by the Senate alone, or with the addition "and the Roman people." Thus we see carved on ancient stones or bronze tablets or coins two letters, "S.C.," that is "By decree of the Senate," or four, "S.P.Q.R.," that is, "The Senate and the Roman People." 

17        Why do you say "nobles" ["optimates"]? Are we to understand that these are leading men in the republic; then why should they be mentioned when the other magistrates are passed by in silence? Or are they the opposite of the "popular" party which curries favor with the people; the ones who seek and champion the welfare of every aristocrat and of the "better" elements, as Cicero shows in one of his orations? Thus we say that Caesar before the overthrow of the republic had been a member of the "popular" party, Cato of the "optimates." The difference between them Sallust explained. But the "optimates" are not spoken of as belonging to the [Emperor's] council, any more than the "popular" party, or other respectable men are. 


Errors of Fact

18        And we ordain and decree that he shall have the supremacy as well over the four seats, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, as also over all the churches of God in the whole earth. And the pontiff also, who at the time shall be at the head of the holy Roman church itself, shall be more exalted than, and chief over, all the priests of the whole world; and, according to his judgment everything which is to be provided for the service of God, and for the faith or the stability of the Christians is to be administered.

        I will not speak here of the barbarisms in [the forger's] language when he says "chief over the priests" instead of chief of the priests; when he puts in the same sentence "extiterit" and "existat" [confusing meanings, moods and tenses]; when, having said "in the whole earth," he adds again "of the whole world," as though he wished to include something else, or the sky, which is part of the world, though a good part of the earth even was not under Rome; when he distinguishes between providing for "the faith" of Christians and providing for their "stability," as though they could not coexist; when he confuses "ordain" and "decree," and when, as though Constantine had not already joined with the rest in making the decree, he has him now ordain it, and as though he imposes a punishment, decree [confirm] it, and confirm it together with the people.

        But what Christian could endure this, and not, rather, critically and severely reprove a Pope who endures it, and listens to it willingly and retails it—namely, that the Roman See, though it received its primacy from Christ, as the Eighth Synod declared according to the testimony of Gratian and many of the Greeks, should be represented as having received it from Constantine, hardly yet a Christian, as though from Christ? Would that very modest ruler have chosen to make such a statement, and that most devout pontiff to listen to it? Far be such a grave wrong from both of them!

        How in the world—this is much more absurd, and impossible in the nature of things—could one speak of Constantinople as one of the patriarchal sees, when it was not yet a patriarchate, nor a see, nor a Christian city, nor named Constantinople, nor founded, nor planned!

        For the "privilege" was granted, so it says, the third day after Constantine became a Christian; when as yet Byzantium, not Constantinople, occupied that site. I am a liar if this fool does not confess as much himself. For toward the end of the "privilege" he writes: Wherefore we have perceived it to be fitting that our empire and our royal power should be transferred in the regions of the East; and that in the province of Bizantia, in the most fitting place, a city should be built in our name; and that our empire should there be established.

        But if he was intending to transfer the empire, he had not yet transferred it; if he was intending to establish his empire there, he had not yet established it; if he was planning to build a city, he had not yet built it. Therefore he could not have spoken of it as a patriarchal see, as one of the four sees, as Christian, as having this name, nor as already built. According to the history [the Life of Sylvester] which Palea cites as evidence, he had not yet even thought of founding it. 

19        But how great is your munificence, 0 Emperor, who deem it not sufficient to have adorned the pontiff, unless you adorn all the clergy also! As an eminence of distinguished power and excellence, you say, they are made patricians and consuls. Who has ever heard of senators or other men being made patricians? Consuls are "made," but not patricians. The senators, the conscript fathers, are from patrician (also called senatorial), equestrian, or plebeian families as the case may be. It is greater, also, to be a senator than to be a patrician; for a senator is one of the chosen counselors of the Republic, while a patrician is merely one who derives his origin from a senatorial family. So one who is a senator, or of the conscript fathers, is not necessarily forthwith also a patrician. So my friends the Romans are now making themselves ridiculous when they call their praetor "senator," since a senate cannot consist of one man and a senator must have colleagues, and he who is now called "senator" performs the function of praetor. But, you say, the title of patrician is found in many books. Yes; but in those which speak of times later than Constantine; therefore the "privilege" was executed after Constantine. 



Adapted from The Treatise of Lorenzo Valla on the Donation of Constantine, translated by Christopher B. Coleman. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1922,

The extracts were made from the electronic text of Hanover Historical Texts Project. That site contains pages 20-183 of Coleman's Latin text and a translation of the Donation.



Text of the Donation of Constantine